N. Shatrujeet

Amitabh Bachchan: The advertiser's safest bet?

Amitabh Bachchan is a favourite among Indian advertisers when it comes to imparting freshness and respectability to brands. What makes the star such a popular endorser?

All through the seventies and early eighties, filmmakers in Bollywood regularly used a surefire recipe for the success of their feature films at the box office: Amitabh Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan and Amitabh Bachchan, in equal measure.

Today, more than 20 years since feature filmmakers first woke up to Bachchan's star power and used it to their advantage, Indian advertisers are taking a leaf out of that much-thumbed recipe book. By signing Bachchan on as their brands' ambassador and star endorser. The idea, evidently, is to ride on the immense popularity and goodwill that the actor enjoys, and use the positive rub-off of the association to the brand's benefit. Be it in terms of recall or likeability. Or both.

So, in the last five months alone, three big advertisers have struck multi-crore endorsement deals with Bachchan - Nerolac Paints, Dabur India (for flagship chyawanprash brand Dabur Chyawanprash), and most recently, Cadbury India. Add to this list last year's endorsement contract between the star and suiting brand Reid & Taylor, and Bachchan's enduring association with ICICI, Pepsi and Parker. That makes it seven active endorsement deals. And though not a commercial endorsement in the strictest sense, one mustn't overlook Bachchan's role as ambassador in the ongoing Pulse Polio campaign being coordinated by UNICEF for the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Now add to all this those brands that the actor has endorsed at various times in the past - BPL (in the mid-nineties, in case you had forgotten) and Maruti Versa - and one gets a fair idea of l'affaire d'amour that has blossomed between Bachchan and the Advertiser.

While the list of Bachchan's endorsements is long - and growing, in all probability - let us focus on the three most recent endorsement deals that the actor has struck. For the sheer convenience it affords, true, but more importantly, for the circumstances that might have led to the contracts being signed. Let's first take Nerolac, which has been the distant second to rival Asian Paints, certainly in image terms. Nerolac signed on Bachchan as its ambassador, and shortly thereafter, unveiled a multimedia campaign featuring the actor which centred at the theme ‘Yeh rang har kisi ko chhoota hai'. The agency handling the account (Interface Communications) has been claiming that the campaign is a hit with consumers, and to be fair to the agency and the advertisers, Nerolac has gained a few notches in image terms.

In the case of Dabur Chyawanprash, although the brand is the clear leader in the chyawanprash market, the category has been a victim of flat growth rates for a while now. And it has been speculated that even Dabur Chyawanprash is in need of a makeover, aimed at keeping the brand relevant to consumers. The answer, as Dabur saw it, lay in getting Bachchan to endorse the brand. "The coming together of brand Amitabh and Dabur Chyawanprash would not only help the brand, but also the category, which has been witnessing near flat growth rates," Sunil Duggal, CEO, Dabur India, has been quoted as saying.

Cadbury, of course, has the strongest reason for roping in an endorser of Bachchan's stature. The company is trying to live down the ‘worm controversy' that tailed its flagship chocolate brand Cadbury Dairy Milk for much of end-2003 (the damaging controversy also caught other Cadbury chocolate brands in its slipstream), and it believes Bachchan is its best bet in the bid to rebuild consumer confidence in the brand. "This is a perfect first between Bachchan and Cadbury chocolates - their timelessness, and the love and trust they both share with people across India, makes this an ideal partnership," Cadbury India's managing director Bharat Puri has been quoted in the media. "Moreover, Bachchan has a universal appeal that extends to everyone from six years to 60, just as our chocolates do."

These endorsement deals clearly point to one thing: Bachchan seems to be something of a blessing for Indian advertisers when it comes to imparting freshness, vigour and, most importantly, respectability to brands. Especially to those in need of some sort of image modification or rejuvenation. But the question is, what makes Bachchan such a safe bet? And how exactly can brands best leverage the star's goodwill to come out on top? That too by beating the burgeoning clutter of Bachchan-endorsed ads?

Cadbury's Puri may have been speaking about Bachchan's timelessness and universal appeal from Cadbury's point of view, but he might as well have been echoing every advertiser's sentiment. "Bachchan is as relevant today as he was 20 years ago, especially after his reinvention through Kaun Banega Crorepati," observes Madhukar Sabnavis, country head, Ogilvy Discovery. "And the best part is his appeal cuts across socio-economic and age strata. Our generation has grown up on Bachchan, while his current popularity ensures that today's generation is also growing up on him." The fact that one of 2003's sleeper hits was Bachchan-starrer Baghban - virtually a one-hero movie - shows the 62-year-old star is still capable of pulling in the crowds.

Universal appeal is a plus, but what really clinches the deal for advertisers is the trust factor. "Amitabh is one of the rare celebrities who still enjoys credibility in people's minds, especially at a time when the lives of celebrities are becoming more and more public," says Rekha Nigam, creative consultant. "By borrowing from that persona, brands come across as more credible." Rensil D'Silva, creative director, Mudra Communications, agrees. "There is great respect for Amitabh among consumers, and his endorsement lends dignity to the communication."

Ultimately, a lot depends on the brand being advertised and the figure of speech. Citing the instances of Nerolac and Dabur Chyawanprash, Nigam says, "If you look at both pieces of communication, it is clear that both are about brand salience and brand differentiation in their respective commoditised markets. There is little brand differentiation in either category, and neither brand is saying anything new. The idea is just to get the brand to stick in consumers' minds." She, however, sees a good opportunity for Cadbury to leverage the aspect of trust. "Both Bachchan and Cadbury are trusted names in India, though now Cadbury has come under a cloud. If Cadbury is able to tap into the trust that consumers have in Bachchan, people will sit up and listen."

The respect Bachchan commands was used very skillfully in last year's campaign for polio eradication (by O&M), an example that almost everyone cites when discussing how best to use Bachchan's firepower. "The agency was clear in its thinking, and the campaign was good as it had a strong idea at the core," says D'Silva. "Amitabh walked the fine line between anger, disgust and humour, and it came naturally." The idea of an angry Bachchan rapping viewers for not doing their bit towards eradicating polio was sincere, and the message homed in true.

Interestingly, Prasoon Joshi, national creative director, McCann-Erickson India, insists that brands have to come across as sincere while leveraging the benefits of celebrity endorsement. "The consumer is cynical, so you must know how far you can go," he says. "Whatever claim your endorser makes has to be believable. The moment you cross the invisible line, the consumer stops believing in your communication and your endorser - which is bad for the endorser." Joshi too points to the Pulse Polio campaign as an example of clever use of a celebrity endorser. "Amitabh commands respect, so people listened to him." He adds that roping in Bachchan was "smart" on Cadbury's part, as, "Amitabh's positive persona can override whatever negatives Cadbury has been exposed to."

D'Silva, for his part, also believes that endorsements cease being credible when the endorser mouths ‘manufacturer speak'. "Often, a brand's desperation shows when it tries too hard. Yes, in the short-term, Bachchan might be able to rescue you if you are down in the dumps, but he cannot be an alternative to a sound strategic or creative idea. If you don't have an idea, Bachchan will only be parroting a manufacturer's claim, which will ring hollow." There is a consensus that using Bachchan as an endorser is a good short-term idea. "Bachchan stands for credibility and brands can benefit from that," says Nigam. In the same breath she cautions that celebrity endorsements are not long-term propositions. "In the long-term, the brand has to be the hero."

There is, however, one little patch of debate. With the star simultaneously endorsing so many brands, a Bachchan endorsement has ceased to be a novelty as far as consumers are concerned. So is an endorsement deal with the actor worth all that money? "There is a theory going around that multiple endorsements by your ambassador don't hinder as long as your endorsement is relevant," points out Sabnavis. There is some merit in that, considering Bachchan's polio campaign cut through all the clutter fairly easily. "Yes, the question that advertisers and agencies have to answer is whether there is merit in using Amitabh Bachchan as an endorser," Sabnavis continues. "But that equally applies to all celebrity endorsers." © 2004 agencyfaqs!

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